The Ascension ProjectThe Ascension Project

What Is a Good Man?

The film was Phase One of an experiment by my friend and colleague, Brad Zervas.  I recognized the high-school girls surfacing from the subway stairs in their school uniforms, books in arms.  I recognized many of the young men in hoodies, slouching against light posts and parked cars, their ragged jeans and camo pants barely belted around their thighs, lower edges dragging under the muddy heels of their untied hi-tops.

“Why should it [ i.e., the boys’ apathy ]  matter to you?”, The Voice off-camera asked.

One-by-one, the girls replied confidently, almost sassily,

“Because I’m not going to be in school my whole life.  After college, I’m going to marry me a good man and have children and have a house and a career and . . .”   “I’m not going to marry no jerk.  I want a good man, a man who’s going to take care of me and our kids and make a home and a life with me . . .”   “I’m going to spend my life with a good man . . . ”.

Their beautiful, young, smiling faces were lighthearted, self-assured.

The Voice off-camera then asked each of them, “What IS a good man”. 

The contrast as each of these promising, hope-driven, ebullient young women responded, was dramatic, heart-wringing.  Faces suddenly twisted with anguish, tears in their eyes and voices, each of the girls bit a lip or wiped an unexpected tear. 

“I don’t know”.

Without resident, life-sharing fathers of their own and in their communities, boys, too, just don't know.

∞ ∞ ∞

My days and nights are immersed in the prevalence and consequences of absentee fatherhood in the lives of barely-parented children in the (mostly) urban communities in my world.  Poverty and estrangement prevail. The fortitude and persistence of children is admirable, poignant, over-taxed.

A migrant worker from the other side of a convent wall, I am not your everyday look-alike nun.  In the years B.C. (before cloister), my “boot camp” was 17 years as the eldest daughter in a big irish-american family.  My choice for life after graduation from a small college prep school myself was to join a community of cloistered contemplative nuns whose South Bronx neighborhood became my grad school for 13 years in the late 50s and 60s. 

I learned how broken “broken” can be.  I saw and felt how deeply one life can touch and sustain, or crush and stifle, multiple other lives.  I ached over the apathy that becomes normal for toddlers-to-teens when home is wherever mom says it is, one week or month at a time, one new school after another, one broken expectation after another. 

Year after year, children’s natural curiosity and energy are dulled because not evoked or reciprocated.  They lose traction.  They age, but don’t thrive.  Their affective lives, their aspirations, their judgment, lag.  Stability is measured in months, not even in complete school years.  They know “belonging” only marginally.  They hide their non-belonging.  They never experience cohesiveness.  They don’t develop habits of thinking ahead to consequences, anticipating and ordering their own destiny.  They never witness the self-discipline and self-determination that even flawed men and women pass on to their children when they persevere together in co-parenting their children, becoming adults together in the home they create together, learning how to parent, together, on the job.

A working contemplative nun, now 58 years later, I also am a professional business woman, organizer and manager of businesses and charitable organizations, hands-on caregiver to the dying and others who live on the edge, and an intervening companion to struggling heads-of-household – and their children -- who flirt with (or are stuck in) life-scarring situations every day.  My life is a continuum of trying to support, encourage, sustain, and ultimately, free the broken-spirited, whatever their circumstances, so that they may ultimately find and seize their own way to their “better life”. 

Mine is the world of the street -- the homeless, the poor, the abandoned frail and dying, the addicted, the abused, the disdained and despised who subsist on the fringes of other people’s righteousness, the overlooked, the imprisoned, unwanted, untrusted immigrants, and the children whose lives are launched and shaped in these vorticesThis is the world in which a loving, protective, intentional father is most desperately needed by his children. 

I see every day that, whatever the immediate cause of a father’s absence, whether partial or total, from the unfolding lives of his daughters and sons, the impact is profound.
It’s not just the absence of the adult male from children’s lives.  It is the absence of that one particular adult male, “my”  father, whose seed “I” am, to whom “ I “ didn’t matter enough to continue what he started. 

Apathetic attitudes, entrenched disappointment in self, expectations of being rejected, have deep, deep roots.

Life With Father . . . On The Job Learning

Fathers, present or absent, shape their children’s attitudes, expectations, and self-understanding as much as genes do. 

Fathers who hold and walk with, scold and play with, live with and grow up with their children, succeed and fail in the presence of their children, get up and go on after a hard fall, become pillars of strength in their children’s lives -- not because they never weaken, but because they stay the course honestly, with fortitude, self-correcting along the way, doing whatever needs to be done to protect, shelter, feed, educate their family.. 

These ordinary, stressed, earnest, persevering men give their children, girls and boys, a core strength and confidence that they, too, can turn out to be good, can overcome temporary failures, can succeed after setbacks, can love, can attract and support love, can live well, can give and nurture new lives.

Children learn their most freeing wisdom in their father’s company, sharing his constancy in good times and bad, safe in his manliness. 

In a fathered home, a child’s questions have living, observable answers.

  • What IS a good man?  Young women who are actively fathered by a good man know one when they see one.  They are not overly impressed by the first hand that holds theirs.  Manliness already has shaped their judgment of males and tempered their expectations.
  • How does a good man behave to a woman?  To the spouse with whom he shares life and home, dreams and plans, sick children, unexpected setbacks?  How does a good man love his daughter?  His son?  How does he co-parent? Co-manage the household income and expenses?  Acknowledge and partner with the woman he loves, to achieve her dreams-hopes-visions-intentions as well as his own and theirs? 
  • How does a good man screw up but not give up?   How does a man admit temporary failure?  How does a man apologize? Ask for help?  From whom?  When?  How?  How does a man move on?  Deal with repeat failures?  Stop repeat failures?  How does a man ask for forgiveness?  Accept forgiveness?  Proceed after forgiveness?  How does a man get himself to higher ground, and his family with him?
  • How does a man deal with discouragement?  With futility? With rejection? Does a good man feel depressed, ever?  Hopeless?  Lost?  How does a sagging good man take the next step?  Hang on?  Go on?
  • How does a man lead?  Lead whom?  Prodding from behind?  Dragging from the front?  Side-by-side?  All of the above?
  • How does a man follow?  Sports, and coaches, and the disciplines of team sports have long filled some of these gaps for boys – but they rarely touch on the male-female dynamics of mom-and-dad teamwork.   How does a man take responsibility without setting up an autocracy?  How does a man know when to yield a decision to his spouse or child versus insisting on having the only decisive authority?  Fathers who live with, play with, entrust responsibilities to their daughters, wives, sons; who defer to their wives with respect and acknowledge their children’s accomplishments, inquisitiveness, and viewpoints, who clearly admire their sons, are not sidelined.  They are consummate leaders.  Their children have no trouble recognizing a good man.

What’s the difference, whether a father is part of the home or not? 

Fathers at home shape their children’s behavior by example, more than commands. 

Absentee fathers shape their children’s behavior by example, too – teaching abandonment and disengagement in face of hardship, leaving their own on their own, for better or for worse. 

The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother – visibly, reliably, within the heart of their home, whatever the hardships of the moment, as the leader of his family.  Children see his commitment to their mother and hers to him, albeit disagreements and hardships are real.  They are on solid ground.  Hardships happen.  In synch with their father, children learn how to reverence their mother, admire her, love her, laugh with her, disagree with her, endure hard times with her, help her and each other get past the moment, appreciate her, protect her and each other. 

Abandonment is learned behavior.  Abandonment fixes nothing.  It just empties a child’s toolbox.

A  Father’s On-The-Job Legacy To His Son

Boys who grow up with a daily dose of Dad are as resistant as any other adolescent to parental “interference” – but when they emerge from adolescence, and when they have sons of their own, they hand-on to the sons of their loins (and the boys they coach) the lessons they themselves learned by osmosis from their on-the-job dads.:

  • Someone Who Did This Before Me . . . someone who explains me to me.
  • The How-To of Manly Touch  . . .  whether firm, or corrective, or tender, or protective, or reassuring.
  • The Wisdom of Restraint .  . . how and when to use discipline, temperance, deference.
  • Self-Control . . .  the wisdom to know when non-response to provocation IS the right response.
  • Integrity . . .   to recognize and admit mistakes.  Manly apologies. Manly courage to redirect your energies sincerely, with commitment.
  • A Chance To Redefine Masculinity . . .  beyond the peer group.
  • Understanding Manly Strength . . .  learning from observing your father that courage is not what you feel but what you do in face of what you feel.
  • The How-To of Male-Female Friendships . . .  how to give AND receive tenderness.
  • The When-What-How of Really MANLY Body Language . . .  beyond preening, beyond animal instinct.
  • The Power of Owning Oneself . . .  self control = self determination = ultimate freedom.
  • The Power of Stick-to-it-iveness . . . you’ve only lost the game when you stop playing, your father reminds you.
  • Heart Language . . .  verbal and non, from grief to angst to aspiration to admiration, the eloquence of maturing mutual love; the unmistakable language of a father
  • Soul Language . . .  a few words from your father to you that are more than 4 letters each, that are not part of lowest common denominator parlance, that uplift, that convey something deeper than “duh“.
  • The MANLINESS of Playfulness . . .  the excitement of mastering the skills of the game --  throwing the ball, running after the ball, catching the ball, evading being caught, running into a slide that might hurt later but was worth it for the team  -- welcoming the younger ones into the game, even though they will inevitably change the dynamics -- learning to cheer each other’s efforts and accomplishments, soften each other’s fumbles, dispel a team mate’s embarrassment by good-natured non-mocking mimicry and fun-making
  • A Taste of Fathering Younger Siblings . . .  children, especially little boys, bring out the man in the boy.  You grow up fast when you have to protect a younger, less competent little sibling; anticipate adverse outcomes and injuries, protect against hurtful consequences, and shore-up a chagrined little teammate/brother. 

An Absentee Dad’s Legacy

Among the things un-fathered boys miss is the chance to morph --

      from awe of their Dad,
      to toddler imitation,
      to boyhood rebellion,
      to teenage resistance and disdain,
      to a young man’s cautious regard,
      to desire for companionship,
      to empathy and admiration,
      to tender, manly love,
      to deliberate companionship.

Fathered sons carry with them a quiet know-how that only the experience of being a father’s loved son can give.  Having been a father’s loved son, a man understands how his own sons react to him.  He intuitively eases their morphing. 

If a lad hasn’t had a chance to experience being fathered, the absence of Dad continues to strangle him all the days and phases of his life.


A memorable Dad.  A bruised Dad who carried in his soul for most of his life the sad childhood loss of his own father that left him always yearning.  A brilliant, noble, manly, athletic, earnest, playful, knockout handsome, clean-hearted, sometimes anguished, diligent, eloquent, funny, amazingly strong, vulnerable, honest-to-himself, loyal Dad.  He made some mistakes.  He knew periods of depression.  He suffered some excesses that required and enabled us all to grow up without lingering.  

He tendered mom through each of the 4 infant deaths that they suffered in between the nine survivors, his strength upholding her while his own heart was as broken as hers.

He never left us wanting.  He always came home to us.  He slept by mom’s side every night, if only for the hour or two between tonight’s overtime and tomorrow’s next shift – but he first came to each of the 9 bedsides, adjusted blankets, blessed and kissed each of us quietly so that even in our sleep, we would know he was there..  . 

In his company and mom’s, together, we nine siblings -- and many of our young friends who chose to live with us for years at a time -- all became wholesome, hopeful, unafraid people, competent, hardworking, good for a laugh at any hour.  The father who lived with us and took time to guide us, discipline us, play with us, lead us, gave us implicit trust in ourselves and life – and the lot of us understand teamwork like nobody else on this earth. 
We thrived, all of us, despite being poorer than all the other homes around us. 

Today, we know we are still unfinished, in-process, on-the-way people, parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, friends, risk-takers, comfort-ers, leaders.  We know what Dad meant when he said (often), “Mom and I might not always have been able to give you everything we would have wished to; but we hope we have enabled you all to be good citizens in a world community”.

I became who I am in a fathered home.  Mom was its heart.  She was Dad’s heart.  He and she together held us all together, enabled us to reach to the stars, with 3 more generations marching behind us to the same drummer today.

Every young man to whom I ever have told a “My Dad” story brings it back to me even years later, fresh, and still influencing him.  A boy needs a father, even if he has to borrow one.

Mary Lanning
About Mary Lanning